Trump tells Pocahontas joke at ceremony honouring Native American war veterans
Families of Navajo war veterans say they are dumbfounded that President Donald Trump took a political jab at a US senator in the form of a racial joke during an event honouring the legacy of Native American soldiers.
Addressing Native American veterans, Trump repeated a favourite taunt about Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren, a political opponent who he refers to derisively as “Pocahontas”.
“You were here long before any of us were here,” Trump said, speaking to the veterans from a podium placed in front of a portrait of US president Andrew Jackson. “Although we have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago. They call her Pocahontas.”
Trump repeatedly mocked Warren over her claim of Cherokee ancestry by calling her Pocahontas, who was the daughter of a powerful Native American leader in 17th century who bridged her own Pamunkey Tribe in present-day Virginia with the British in the 1600s and whose legacy was romanticised in the Disney film of the same name.
During the campaign, Trump’s use of the nickname drew loud whoops and cheers. But on Monday, the audience was silent.
Relatives of the Navajo veterans said the comment was inappropriate and distracted from the men’s work that helped the US win the second world war. The largest organisation representing American Indians said Trump wrongly turned the name into a derogatory term.
Warren, a progressive icon from Massachusetts who has a long record of sparring with Trump, later said it was “deeply unfortunate” that “the President of the United States cannot even make it through a ceremony honouring these heroes without having to throw out a racial slur”.
The White House disputed that characterisation and blamed the senator for not being forthright about her ancestry.
“I think what most people find offensive is Senator Warren lying about her heritage to advance her career,” Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary said on Monday.
Challenged over Warren’s description of it as a “racial slur”, Sanders replied: “I think that is a ridiculous response.”
She denied that the president had insulted elderly guests who served the nation during the war. “The president certainly finds an extreme amount of value and respect for these individuals which is why he brought them and invited them to come to the White House, spent time with them, recognising and honouring them today.”
As Sanders left the briefing room, a reporter shouted a question about why Trump’s remarks took place under a portrait of Andrew Jackson, notorious for forced removals of Indians. She did not respond.
In 1830, Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act that led to the forced removal, relocation and deaths of thousands of Native Americans from the American South.
The Navajo “code talkers” used their native language to create a secret means of communication that helped the Allied forces gain on Japan in the Pacific theatre. At the ceremony, the three code talkers described their experience during the battle of Iwo Jima. Trump hailed the men as “special people”.
The line of attack of Warren’s ancestry stretches back to her 2012 Senate campaign, when it was revealed that she had listed herself as a minority while working at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and Harvard Law School. Warren has said that she believed her family had Cherokee Indian ancestors, though critics have argued that she sought to gain an unfair advantage by claiming Native American roots. Both universities have denied that race was a factor in her hiring.
Associated Press, The Guardian